It's important to figure out what to say before you start talking.
Don't quote me on this, but Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote something to the effect that a good conversation is just as stimulating as black coffee - and just as hard to sleep after. That's part of the problem with the Internet these days. It's an endless warren of conversation, where people can quickly click away from anything that doesn't interest them. Unless you've got something of substance to offer, your audience is gone.
This is the main reason why digital advertising doesn't work all that well. Admit it - you don't click on those banner ads, do you? And ten to one, you probably click the 'skip ad' button on YouTube videos just as soon as they appear. Am I right? Of course I am. In an online world built around the concept of fluid conversation, static ad copy comes across like tone-deaf buzz-sawing. No one wants it.
So what's the alternative? Thankfully, that's an easy one. If it's conversation people want, then it's conversation you have to provide. It may be hard to accept, but your word isn't the last word on anything anymore.
Whether you want to raise awareness for your cause, find new followers, or simply promote your brand, you've got to meet people where they are. You have to talk to people. You've got to listen and process what they say. Finally, you have to take their input into account and respond in a thoughtful manner. In other words, you have to engage them in a meaningful conversation.
Sound difficult? I won't lie: it can be. Unlike traditional marketing, an online conversation can be ongoing and hard to control. As customers' needs change, the resulting conversation is going to change as well. It's going to veer off in new directions, touch on new subjects and, ultimately, offer up new insights.
The good news is that your brand can benefit from all this change. In order to own a greater conversation share, you simply have to be willing to listen to others and respond accordingly. Saying that you have the solution to X is of little use if people are complaining about Y. In other words, when people start talking about Y, you've got to talk about it too. Otherwise, you're just shouting into the void - the place where no one hears you.
This means you have to deliberately choose your conversations. You have to identify your target audiences, determine their specific needs, and then zero in on the keywords and calls to action that are most likely to compel them. All the while, you need to keep in mind that conversations ceaselessly change directions the same way a river can, which means you have to pivot and veer in order to stay on course.
Essentially, it all comes down to research. Imagine yourself walking into a cocktail party and scanning the room for a place to insert yourself. Researching online conversations is, in effect, the very same thing. You're checking out the partygoers, looking for familiar faces, and trying to figure out where you best belong. You could just walk up to a group of strangers and start jabbing away, but no one does that in the offline world, and you really shouldn't do it online either.
Thankfully, there are a ton of way you can carry out your conversation research. Some predominant examples include:
Keyword Everywhere - a Chrome & Firefox plug-in that offers intel on Google search terms
Customer review sites like Yelp and Angie's List
Retail sites with product reviews (Think Amazon & Target)
Q & A sites like Quora, Fluther, and Yahoo! Answers
Twitter hashtag metrics
Specialized Facebook groups
Weblogs related to your brand, product, or topic of interest
VidIQ - A YouTube metrics plug-in that measures video keywords and SEO
These are just a few of the ways you can find the intel needed to construct a coherent and meaningful conversation campaign. It needn't be a tedious or overly painful process, either, but the more time you spend researching your conversation the more knowledgeable you'll become. Because here's the thing: Understanding the conversation before you dive in gives you a significant advantage over the loud-mouthed advertisers who haven't yet figured out the new digital landscape. In the end, you'll be better positioned to offer up that black coffee of stimulating conversation that kept Anne Morrow Lindberg up all night.